35 Years Ago, Adrian Rogers Was Elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention Which Launched the “Conservative Resurgence”

Adrian Rogers, pictured here at the 1988 SBC annual meeting, was elected to his first of three presidential terms 35 years ago. SBHLA photo.
Adrian Rogers, pictured here at the 1988 SBC annual meeting, was elected to his first of three presidential terms 35 years ago. SBHLA photo.

Thousands of messengers had arrived in Houston to vote for Adrian Rogers in the presidential election at the 1979 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting. Some with limited resources had traveled hundreds of miles and were sleeping in tents in hopes of restoring their denomination to theological orthodoxy.

There was just one problem: It was the night before the election and Rogers wasn’t sure that God wanted him to be nominated. When he encountered fellow conservative leaders Paige Patterson and Jerry Vines in a hotel lobby, the three of them, along with Rogers’ wife Joyce, went to pray about the matter in Rogers’ room.

After hours of seeking God’s will, Joyce Rogers, feeling God’s leading, signaled to her husband, and he said, “I will do it.”

The following afternoon, Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., was elected over five other candidates on the first ballot with 51 percent of the vote. The Conservative Resurgence had begun.

Thirty-five years later, observers say Rogers, who died in 2005, was the pivotal leader in the SBC’s struggle to make belief in the Bible’s inerrancy a bedrock commitment of all convention entities — a commitment that undergirds Southern Baptists’ evangelistic outreach at home and abroad.

Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible is completely free from error regarding theology, history, science and every other matter to which it speaks. The group who advocated inerrancy and elected Rogers labeled themselves “conservatives,” a reference to theology more than political ideology. Opponents of the conservatives — many of whom held orthodox beliefs but thought theological diversity should be tolerated in the SBC — were called “moderates.”

Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said he is excited to see a young generation of pastors who believe the Word of God and hold to a high degree of understanding of its authenticity. “I believe that this new reality is directly attributable to great men who stood strong for the Gospel and especially Dr. Adrian Rogers,” he said. “His election 35 years ago signaled a grassroots movement that has changed our entire denominational mindset. Thank God for Dr. Adrian Rogers.”

‘Manning the pumps’

Despite the last-minute decision to run, Rogers was motivated to serve the convention by events stretching back to his days as a student at Stetson University in Florida when he learned that some professors funded by the Cooperative Program questioned doctrines that most Southern Baptists regarded as foundational to the Christian faith.

In one class taught by an ordained Baptist minister, Rogers “heard the great historic truths of the faith demeaned over and over,” Joyce Rogers wrote in “Love Worth Finding,” a biography of her husband. After class one day, Rogers gathered the courage to confront his professor and asked, “Sir, are you really saved?”

In response the professor defined salvation as “that experience when a man escapes the consequences of a maladjustment to his fellow man” and said, “I don’t know if there is a heaven or hell.”

Soon Rogers learned that the problem in Baptist life was not isolated to his university.

By the mid-20th century, “the view that the Bible was not the Word of God had become common among professors at Southern Baptist seminaries,” Baptist historian Gregory Wills wrote in “Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009.”

Wills explained that for much of the 20th century, seminary administrators tried to persuade the denomination that their professors were orthodox while at the same time trying to persuade professors to conceal their more objectionable views, revealing them only at strategic moments to sympathetic audiences. Southern Seminary professor Bill Hull, for example, was known to hide progressive views in book reviews on modern French or Belgian New Testament scholarship. “I often like to ‘bury’ such comments in material that will be read only by those who need to see it,” Hull wrote in a 1966 letter to Southern Seminary President Duke McCall.

Occasionally, however, Southern Baptists caught a glimpse of what seminaries were teaching.

In 1961, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Ralph Elliott’s “The Message of Genesis,” published by the Baptist Sunday School Board, argued that some of the stories in Genesis were historically inaccurate, including the flood and the sacrifice of Isaac. Sixteen of the SBC’s 28 state paper editors criticized the book, and the 1962 annual meeting in San Francisco adopted a motion expressing “abiding and unchanging objection to the dissemination of theological views in any of our seminaries which would undermine … faith in the historical accuracy and doctrinal integrity of the Bible.”

Eventually Elliott was fired. But C.R. Daley, editor of Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder journal, said there were many other seminary professors like him.

If Elliot is “a heretic, then he is one of many,” Daley said according to a 1983 Christianity Today article. “… Professors in all our seminaries know that Elliott is in the stream of thinking with most of them, and is more in the center than some.”

Rogers believed that some seminary administrators were being dishonest about what faculty members believed and that some faculty held views that were unacceptable to the Southern Baptists who funded them.

The problem wasn’t isolated to the seminaries. In 1969, the Sunday School Board published a commentary on Genesis by British scholar G. Henton Davies that claimed Genesis 1-11 was not historical and that Abraham was mistaken in his belief that God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. The 1970 SBC passed a motion calling for the book to be withdrawn and rewritten.

Rogers believed that he faced a choice: leave the convention or lead a change.

“Adrian considered leaving the denomination,” Joyce Rogers wrote. “This would be a major step should he do so. It would require his leading his church to come out of the denomination or else resigning. But in his heart he believed something could and should be done. He used this analogy. The Southern Baptist Convention is a good old ship that has taken on much water and is slowly sinking. The choices seemed to be to abandon the ship or to man the pumps. He chose the latter and was ultimately blessed in ‘manning the pumps’ along with others.”

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SOURCE: Baptist Press
David Roach

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